For MC/producer Pharoahe Monch, being kept out of the studio for nearly seven years has been nothing less than stifling. After scoring the Godzilla-sampled club hit “Simon Says” in '99, this former member of the beloved NYC hip-hop duo Organized Konfusion has lived like an artist with paint but no proper canvas to unleash his conceptual compositions. Aside from crafting a few rare singles and collaborations, Monch has been unable to record a follow-up to his solo debut, Internal Affairs (Rawkus, 1999), largely due to what he describes as “record-label politics.” But a string of recording deals gone wrong hasn't driven Monch into hiding; it has inspired his long-awaited and undeniably powerful sophomore LP, Desire (Universal/SRC, 2007).
With the gospel-fueled lead single “Push” and The Alchemist-produced soul explosion “Desire,” Monch's new album demonstrates just how seven years of contained creativity can motivate an artist. “It came from a place inside that is almost tear-jerking — in good ways, bad ways, strong ways, weak ways — in terms of being able to reach a little further in and pull something out that moves me,” says the self-dubbed “poetical pastor.” “During the process of recording, if I'm dropping a verse [and am] moved with a little goose bump here or a little chill, and I think I have a possibility of doing that to somebody else, I think that's what's important.”
Reaching that soul-stirring pinnacle wasn't a feat that Monch accomplished alone. Before recording Desire, Monch discovered while touring that the vocal power he wanted to achieve would require a little outside assistance. “I knew going into making this album that my stage show was gonna have to go toward singers who could carry out these choruses I was writing,” explains Monch, who called upon up-and-coming vocalists Showtyme and Mela Machinko for a handful of tracks on his new album.
But before stepping into the studio with the vocalists, Monch spent a lot of time at home with his Akai MPC2000XL and E-mu Proteus module to set off a track. As Monch describes his process, “I'll do a skeleton [2-track] out of the crib and then go to the studio and work with musicians and bring it up from there.”
Monch admittedly enjoyed laying the groundwork for some songs in the comforts of his house, but he also grew rather at ease in the studio working with a number of producers — especially when he made a pilgrimage to Detroit to work with Denaun Porter of Eminem and D12 fame. In contrast to the jubilant sounds of “Push” and “Desire,” Porter helped bring out the darker, cinematic side of Monch on the graphic narratives “The Trilogy” and “When the Gun Draws.” “Denaun Porter was there, and I think that marriage was incredible in terms of him understanding who I am, what I mean, what value I have to the marketplace, and where I need to go,” Monch says.
Monch also found himself working with a lesser-known beatsmith while in Detroit: the steadily rising Black Milk. Recommended by Porter, Black Milk provided two beats and especially shines on the robust, guitar and keys-laced single, “Let's Go.” “Black Milk is just so raw that you can't dibble dabble around his beats — you gotta go in for the kill,” Monch says. “As soon as he was playing beats like ‘Let's Go,’ I went and did the 16 [bars] over the 2-track.”
Although, as Black Milk recounts, in order to match Monch's lyrical intensity, he felt the need to toughen up the rhythm on “Let's Go” with a Roland TR-808. “I cut a lot of my beats in the basement, so when you get to the studio and you listen to them through the gigantic, expensive-ass speakers, you hear the beat a different way,” Black Milk explains. “So I tightened up the drums, made 'em hit a little harder and put some 808 on top of the keys.”
With the outright ruggedness of “Let's Go” or even the smoothed-out sounds of “Push,” Pharoahe Monch shows no signs of going soft for Desire. No doubt, some may be surprised by the amount of singing and R&B-friendly vibes on the album, but Black Milk sums up the album best saying, “It's still hard, hip-hop shit.” And for that, heads will be thankful.